Fighting fire with flies

Fly tyers look to replicate their fundraising success to help fund Australian bushfire relief
australian bushfires
Smoke from bushfires obfuscates the sun and darkens the sky a deep red in New South Wales, Australia (photo: Rob Russel / cc2.0).

The power was out with no sign of returning as the conditions outside deteriorated. Dorian had left the entire Southeast wrought with worry as images out of The Bahamas left residents wondering where the historic storm would land next. Fortunately, we were never placed in harm’s way.

As my cellphone battery diminished, I searched social media high and low for news coming out of Marsh Harbour. Only a few weeks removed from time on the island of Abaco, I urgently sought updates about the people, places, and fishery I had fallen in love with. I reached out to guides, who I wouldn’t hear back from for weeks—some of them safe but shaken, some of them refugees on the move who had lost their homes, boats, and very means of existence. Every update that came in seemed worse than the last, and every bit of it left me feeling anxious, if not empty.

In those hours I stumbled upon an angler who seemed equally unsure of how to help. Instead of nearly in Dorian’s track, Josh Mills was nearly three thousand miles away, near the waters of the Columbia River, which was in the midst of some of the worst steelhead returns in over 75 years. While never having visited The Bahamas, Mills felt the need to help in any way possible. As a board member of the Wild Steelhead Coalition and volunteer for Save Our Wild Salmon and Backcountry Hunter & Anglers, Mills understood the collective effort needed to overcome hurdles facing a community. Mills, who describes steelhead as what “makes his outdoor world go round” and is an avid fly tyer, quipped that his “ability to tie flies far outpaced his ability to write big checks.” And so Mills decided to take to social media (Instagram, specifically), throw up a dozen hand-tied steelhead flies for auction and see what happened.

Friend and Yellow Dog ambassador Bryan Gregson shared his post with the community including Clark Pierce, otherwise known as Cheech, of Fly Fish Food. Shortly thereafter, #dozenfordorian was born. As a tame Dorian dumped wind and rain on the window above my tying desk, I whipped together a dozen redfish flies. With little hope for how much they would bring in, I saw it mostly as an opportunity to supplant my growing worries.

But #dozenfordorian created a movement larger than Mills, and likely anyone, had anticipated. One fly tyer after another offered up their creations on Instagram, slapped them with the #dozenfordorian tag, held an informal auction and sent along the resulting proceeds to the Yellow Dog Community & Conservation Foundation (YDCCF), who stepped in to reliably and thoughtfully distribute the funds to help those impacted, along with money raised through their other fundraiser, Double Haul for Dorian. In twenty-four hours, two thousand dollars were raised.

“Wouldn’t it be crazy,” Mills asked the Instagram fly fishing community, “if we raised $10,000?” The answer was no. Behind every new creation there was a community of supporters willing to pay a handsome price for each offering. In less than a month’s time #dozenfordorian raised over $42,000 dollars for YDCCF. Humbled by the popularity of the cause, Mills described the effort as “a collective force for rapid response.” Despite all of his hard work to propel the response forward, Mills described the community as one that “drives itself.”

While the people of Abaco and Grand Bahama will need help for years to come, eventually the ability to raise funds through the #dozenfordorian effort was exhausted. But it wasn’t long after that the scenes of devastation coming out of Australia prompted Mills to once again take to social media with the question: “What do you guys think? Should we do it?” The answer was a resounding yes.

While fire season is an annual occurrence in Australia, unstable climate conditions have made them nearly impossible to control. Persistent drought, heat waves, and high winds have all contributed to the nearly eighteen million acres of land burned across all of Australia’s states. Deaths continue to rise and estimates of wildlife impact range anywhere between five hundred million and a billion (Billion, with a B). Unfortunately, fire season has a long way to go.

Within a few short days of Mills announcing the new cause, #dozenfordownunder, nearly ten thousand dollars has already been bid. Seventy five contributors have offered their services, and that number is expected to continue growing.

According to Dillon Gruber, Director of YDCCF, the first target of #dozenfordownunder contributions will be to assist boots on the ground. “The number one priority is to get the fires put out. Period. No doubt there will be some stream restoration project and community projects down the line, but the fact of the matter is that we’re still in the midst of this natural disaster.”

instagram #dozenfordownunder auction instagram #dozenfordownunder auction
Examples of #dozenfordown under auctions on Instagram.

Highlighting the utterly exhausted ground crews of professional and volunteer firefighters, Gruber indicated that all donations from #dozenfordownunder will go towards their support. Funds will initially be disbursed to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, near where anglers are regularly guided on the waters of the Blue and Snowy Mountains.

For Mills, this new approach to raising funds is something to be celebrated. While social media is regularly demonized for hot-spotting, fueling pro-staff mentality, and a distraction from what many purists consider to be the very essence of fly fishing, there is no debate that in this case it provided the medium for good. In Mills’ words, it “pooled the collective power of a niche, online community and focused it for the greater good.”

Sometimes, a simple “aha” moment starts the ball rolling for what will grow into a force of its own. Individuals in the fly fishing community continue to step up to assist people and habitats they have never met or seen. With an uphill battle still to fight, and surely new ones to come, it’s helpful to remember when Mills first asked, Wouldn’t it be crazy if …?

From here on out, the sky’s the limit.

To help the Australian bushfire relief effort by offering your own creations or bidding on those on offer, explore the #dozenfordownunder hashtag on Instagram.

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